Slashing Art and Activism

Yesterday I happened to drive all the way to Domlur to attend this “Art Slash Activism” event organized by the Center for Internet and Society and one other organization whose name I’ve forgotten. I must confess that I had set my expectations too high, for the event’s description on the website itself was a little hazy and “global” (as we would put in B-school parlance). Given it was set as a part of a series of events on “open data”, and from what I could gather from the event website, I thought there might be fundaes to be got on stuff like data representation – a topic I’m quite interested in and am looking to learn. Maybe this was too optimistic, but I expected some Hans Rosling type visualizations there.

As it turned out, I ended up walking out an hour into the event (it was supposed to last for two hours), unable to take it any more. I don’t know if “Art Slash Activism” meant that people had to speak on exactly one of the topics. Or maybe it was just that the description of the overall theme was so vague that the designated speakers simply went up and spoke on whatever they wanted to speak, giving the same kind of speeches they give elsewhere. The speeches were quite disjointed, I must mention, and none of the three that I happened to sample during an hour there were anything close to spectacular on their own legs, either.

First up was an activist, who I was to later find out, was from an organization whose representatives we had majorly trolled when they had come to IIMB to give a series of guest lectures on culture. She spoke about activism, essentially about her research, using some high-sounding terms, and trying to diss certain popular discourse. While the content of the speech might have been appropriate in another context, I soon had the feeling of what I had gotten myself into. The curious thing was that people all round me were taking notes, furiously. Like this was a lecture in their college on which they would be quizzed in their next exam. For what it was worth, I took out my fancy notebook and fountain pen, but didn’t write anything.

She was followed by an American lecturer and librarian, who gave a power point presentation on “what is a database”, again something I thought was quite trivial and not really in context. Maybe it was my fault, and I didn’t understand the context at all, but this guy seemed like one of those Americans who think that people in “third world countries such as India” know little, and need to be educated on the fundamentals.

There were supposed to be four speakers on the day which was supposed to be followed by a discussion, but I left midway through the third speech, which was by an artist, who spoke about her art. It was all so disjointed and disconnected. I don’t know, and don’t particularly care, if the last speech would have added value.

I don’t particularly regret going. The event website promised “option value” – the option that I would meet some interesting people at the event, and the option that I would get to learn something I wanted to learn. In the event, the option expired worthless. I’ll continue to go to events or meet people for the option value, and I know a lot of them might expire worthless. But I know that if I keep doing this, there might be a breakthrough somewhere. And I’m chasing those potential massive payoffs.

The moral of this story is about clarity in communications. When you try sell something to people, you need to be concise with your communication, and let them know exactly what you’re trying to sell them. If you’re vague, there is a chance they might be disappointed because they expected something completely different from what you were actually offering. And this is a major problem for me as I try set myself up as a fairly niche consultant.

Separation of Church and Estate

I’m talking about Sathya Sai Baba here (incidentally, in Kannada his name translates to “did you die? Die! Come, come!”), who recently “attained his own lotus feet”, to paraphrase what someone said on Twitter. Even Sachin Tendulkar’s prayers for his health didn’t help him, it seems.

So there are two sides to saibaba, and going forward it is important that the two be kept disjoint. On the one hand is the “NGO work” that his organization has undertaken – the super-specialty hospitals in Puttaparthi and Bangalore, the drinking water project they’ve implemented in Rayalseema, and the like. On the other is the spiritual side, where you have thousands of “devotees” (I once called my aunt “Sai baba’s follower” and she got offended saying “I’m a devotee, not a follower”) singing bhajan and going delirious when Sai Baba produced Caramilk toffees out of thin air and threw them into the crowd (a long time ago, I was one of them, jumping up and down to catch these toffees).

I guess efforts are on to find his “spiritual successor” (and I hope China doesn’t step in to prevent his reincarnation), and there is already reportedly a huge fight among his “close devotees” regarding control of his estate. The estate is huge, and is supposed to get lots of donations, a large part of which at least (it appears) has been deployed in developmental projects. It is important that these developmental projects continue, and to ensure that they’re not hijacked by “devotees” who want to pursue a different agenda, it’s important to spin off this side of the organization into a registered NGO – recognized and regulated by the government, providing tax exemption to donations, publishing accounts regularly, and the like. You know how common it is that “spiritual NGOs” are hijacked for purposes of money laundering.

I don’t care what happens to the rest of the organization – with the delirious “devotees” who sing bhajans and give “global” speeches” and start TV and radio stations. Perhaps it is important for it to also continue – for its presence will mean people continue to be attached to the baba, which could help in fundraising efforts for the NGO. I’m sure they’re going to find a spiritual successor, but it needs to be seen how many of the baba’s “devotees” remain devoted to this successor.

On an unrelated note, I see in the papers that the baba is going to be buried. I don’t know what the rules of the caste he was born into (Raju) is, but I suppose this is a tactic so that there is no mad fight for his ashes, the “holiest of the holy vibhutis”, in case he is cremated. Even then, I wouldn’t be surprised if his body gets exhumed by some overzealous “devotee” sooner or later. They need to dig deeper.